American Institute of Graphic Arts Recognizes Dickinson Herbarium

Dickinson Herbarium  
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition has been selected by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) for its annual 50 Books/50 Covers competition.

June 19, 2007 – Since 1923, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has recognized excellence in book design and production with its annual 50 Books/50 Covers competition, and this year a Houghton Library collection facsimile takes its place as one of the winners. Among the recently released selections for 2006 publications is the full-size, full-color reproduction of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium from the library’s Dickinson collection, published last year by Harvard University Press (HUP).

As the name implies, the competition chooses 50 books as well as an additional 50 covers that demonstrate superior design. The herbarium was one of the 50 selected for overall design. Chosen books span many genres, from trade, reference, and juvenile books to university and museum publications, and include limited-edition and special-format books. Last year’s winners were culled from more than 900 entries.

The herbarium’s facsimile publication was momentous for Dickinson scholars because, previously, the original item had long been stored, off-limits, in a vault. The album of pressed flowers and plants made by the young Dickinson was so fragile that just turning a page caused specimens to crumble. For years, researchers visiting Houghton had to make do with reduced-size, black-and-white photos of the herbarium made in the 1980s.

Fortunately, the advent of digital imaging technology, painstaking conservation, and elegant design by the Harvard University Press finally brought the facsimile to fruition last year.  The reproduction carefully mimics Dickinson’s green album containing 424 specimens delicately attached with small strips of paper to 66 leaves, and Dickinson’s neat handwritten labels identify each plant’s scientific name. Specimens are either native plants, plants naturalized to western Massachusetts where Dickinson lived, or houseplants. The quality of the reproduction is such that one can see the shadows that many of the pressed pieces cast, giving the pages an almost 3D look.

 
The first page in Emily Dickinson's herbarium displays two samples of jasmine, common privet, horse balm, and European barberry. (Houghton Library, MS Am 1118.11. Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College.)

The long-sought publication of the herbarium was overseen by Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library and AIGA’s recognition was icing on the cake. "The publication of the Herbarium was one of my personal high points last year," said Morris. "It was wonderful to get external validation that the book was not only important for Dickinson scholarship, it fully captured the beauty of the original object."

Other HCL staff integrally involved with the herbarium’s publication included Alan Puglia, Conservator for Houghton Library Collections, Vicki Denby, Curatorial Assistant at Houghton, and Julia Featheringill, Photographer. As for the book design, former University Press Art Director Marianne Perlak, who retired last winter, took on that challenge.

"Reproducing Dickinson’s collection in actual size meant designing the scant editorial text on a huge page; the wide bleed band of delicate color on the outside of these textual pages provided an elegant way to reduce the surface and provide a warmer feeling to a book that borders on science and poetry," wrote Perlak in her statement to AIGA.

To be eligible for the 50 Books/50 Covers competition, a book must consist of at least 48 pages (except for children’s books) and be either case-bound or paperbound between covers. Except in the case of limited-edition books, print runs must be in excess of 250 copies. Entries should be for sale to the general public, or, if free, should not be publications whose primary purpose is to advertise or serve as an annual report or other corporate literature. AIGA’s jury selections become part of the AIGA Design Archives, are documented in 365: AIGA Year In Design, and are exhibited at the AIGA National Design Center in New York.
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For more on Dickinson’s Herbarium, see Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium Published.